Higher Education in the UK

big ben in londonThe United Kingdom is widely known for the quality and rigor of its educational system and many Harvard students choose to conduct graduate study in one of its renowned institutions of higher education. Harvard students may recognize some facets of the educational model, while others will feel quite foreign. For example, the "House" system at Harvard was modeled after the "College" system in place at Cambridge and Oxford Universities — students are organized into residential units, called "colleges", where they will spend the majority of their time outside the classroom (many of the faculty live on-campus in these colleges as well!) In contrast to Harvard, however, colleges often have formal or informal relationships with certain fields of study and extracurriculars, and applicants for admission will be expected to indicate their preferred Colleges on their application (be careful — some courses/degrees are only offered to students living in the associated colleges!)

Students who have been educated in the U.S. may also notice that the UK educational model is much more focused than the American one. Most U.K. universities do not employ a "liberal arts" approach; U.K. university students spend more time concentrating on their field of choice than students in the American system. This is especially true of graduate studies, where there is often little, or no, cross disciplinary training offered. As such, students wishing to gain admission to a U.K. graduate program will need to have a specific and well-thought-out plan of study, focused on gaining a particular kind of training or conducting a clearly defined research project.

Identifying the Right University for You

In another contrast to the American model of education, most U.K. higher education institutions are state/publicly funded (the government does not control the content of the course offerings, though, except in teacher education programs.). This relationship allows the government to evaluate institutions more rigorously, leading to helpful guides like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which scores the quality of the research output at each institution by field. This kind of evaluation helps prospective graduate students identify the best university/universities for their particular interests and helps to prevent applications from clustering at the universities perceived to be the most prestigious.

Degree Types

American students will also find that there are several different types of master's degrees that can be obtained in the U.K., with a range of teaching styles and titles. So-called "taught" programs tend to offer a slate of courses that rotate each term, much like what undergraduates are used to, and have titles like MA, MLitt, MSc, and MASt. "Research" programs offer little or no coursework and consist of research only — they have titles like MLitt by Research, MSc by Research, MPhil, MPhil by Advanced Study, MPhil by Research, or MRes. (There are also hybrid degrees that offer some coursework early on and expect the later term(s) to be dedicated to research.) Often, a single department will offer multiple different master’s degrees of different types, so you should carefully consider all the options before applying (N.B. it is acceptable to apply to more than one program, and to more than one department.) Doctoral degrees in the U.K. are sometimes referred to as PhDs, but may also be referred to as DPhils.


In general, American students will find that the U.K. educational system, especially at schools like Cambridge and Oxford, is more decentralized than is commonplace in the U.S. Entrance requirements and application deadlines not only vary by university, they vary by department and by program. Many departments evaluate admissions applications on a rolling basis, so even if you see a late spring deadline for applications, you should aim to submit your application sometime in the Fall to give yourself the best chance of success. This timing also puts you in the best position to receive a merit-based scholarship, many of which are awarded in the wintertime and do not consider applicants who have applied later. The official U.K. school year usually runs from September/October through June, and is typically divided into three terms, with roughly month-long breaks in between. Some graduate programs require that students complete their thesis over the summer months though, so be sure to inquire about any after-term expectations before buying those plane tickets home!